Every year, 133 billion pounds of food go to waste in the US—that’s roughly 30–40% of the nation’s overall food supply, totaling between $161–218 billion in economic losses. At the same time that one-third of the nation’s food supply went uneaten, 40 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2017, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Inaccurate food labels are one of the primary culprits of the waste crisis. Legislation like the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act protects consumers by enforcing food safety standards and regulating labels’ health and nutrient claims. Unfortunately, a byproduct of these labels’ imprecise language is that consumers are too often led to prematurely discard food. A 2019 study conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determined that 84 percent of participants had discarded food on or near the package date, whether or not the package date corresponded to the product’s expiration. Developments like “smart labels” and scannable QR codes could provide US consumers with the practical, data-driven solutions needed to reverse the nation’s food waste crisis.
(Mis)Labeling and Food Waste
Earlier this year, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree announced plans to reintroduce a “Food Date Labeling Act” to establish a nationally unified labeling system. The proposed federal legislation calls for standardizing the language that appears on food labels. Two months later, on World Food Safety Day, the FDA launched its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, set to “leverage new and emerging technologies to further our food safety goals.” Legislation and initiatives like these recognize the need for innovative approaches to urgent dilemmas.
As FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas recently suggested, the key to intervention may lie in technology like smart labels, blockchain, sensors, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence—all marshaled toward a “more digital, traceable, and safer food system.” Moving beyond traditional labeling, smart labels can use built-in sensors or microchips to monitor the freshness of food products and update consumer-facing information accordingly. Major US companies like Flower Foods—whose subsidiary brands include Nature’s Own breads and Dave’s Killer Bread—have recently adapted SmartLabel technology. Brand manager Sherry Harper reports that the quantity of scans to date demonstrates “that Smart Label [sic] is a valuable tool for consumers to gain more information about a product.”
Toward a New Era of Food Safety and Waste Reduction
Last year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.) and the Food Marketing Institute (F.M.I.) inaugurated its joint SmartLabel digital initiative, after finding that more than 56% of consumers were interested in using an app to access product information. Not only will this initiative generate positive environmental impact, but it could also lead to considerable economic gains. The food traceability market—which tracks food at all stages of production and distribution—is expected to exceed $18 billion by 2020. In a statement for G.M.A., Jim Flannery notes that “SmartLabel participation has increased significantly from 4,000 products in early 2017 to nearly 28,000 food, beverage, personal care and household products [as of July 2018].” As the market for data-driven solutions to food safety grows, it presents tangible possibilities for a future of reduced food waste.